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Black Romantic | The Figurative Impulse in Cont Af Am Art

Group show at Studio Museum in Harlem. 2002
Date: 25 April, 2002 until 23 June, 2002
Organiser: Studio Museum in Harlem

Black Romantic, subtitled The Figurative Impulse in Contemporary African-American Art was an exhibition hosted by The Studio Museum in Harlem in 2002 (April 25 - June 23). Featuring some 30 artists, namely: Alonzo Adams, Leroy Allen, Iana L. N. Amauba, Jules R. Arthur, III, Alexander Austin, Marlon H. Banks, Nina I. Buxenbaum, Clifford Darrett, Keith J. Duncan, Lawrence Finney, Gerald Griffin, James Hoston, Robert L. Jefferson, Oliver B. Johnson, Jr., Troy L. Johnson, Jonathan M. Knight, Jeanette Madden, Cal Massey, Dean Mitchell, Kadir Nelson, Leslie Printis, Robert V. Reid, Jonathon Romain, Philip Smallwood, Aj Smith, Toni L. Taylor, Hulbert Waldroup, Larry Walker, Shamek Weddle, and Kehinde Wiley.

In many ways, Black Romantic was a decidedly unfashionable exhibition, making it something of a bold and refreshing venture. Eschewing the dominant fare in contemporary art galleries, the exhibition presented the arguably conservative medium of figurative painting, by artists from across the US. The paintings evoked, in varying measure, idealism, romanticism, illustration, surrealism, naturalism, social realism, and racial uplift. In the accompanying catalogue, Black Romantic was described by Lowery Stokes Sims, the Studio Museum’s Director, as an exhibition in which “elements of desire, dreams, determination, and romance particular to the black experience present a viewpoint that is oppositional to modernist conceptualization of blackness flavoured by exogenous exoticism, stereotype, caricature, and even abstractionist manipulation.”

The exhibition catalogue was a very substantial publication. All 30 artists were represented by a full-page reproduction of their work, monochrome or colour, as appropriate. Other reproductions appeared throughout the contextualising texts and interviews. The written portions of the catalogue included interviews with four of the exhibition’s artists. The catalogue takes seriously its task of discussing work that has traditionally been disparaged or ignored by significant sections of the gallery network. To this end, a range of considered voices and opinions are marshalled throughout these texts. Witness for example, Valerie Cassel:

“…Black Romanticism should not be dismissed as fictionalized nostalgia. Neither can it be categorically noted as the remnants of black empowerment and the effects of federal funding in disenfranchised urban centers. Black Romanticism, contemporarily speaking, engages aspects of a vernacularism reservoir that many Americans so desperately seek. It is a consumable, visual language designed and embraced to be, by its very nature, a radical act.”

Or this, from Kalefa Sanneh:

“If the works in Black Romantic constitute what might be called the commercial mainstream of contemporary black art, they are also descended from the storytelling tradition that has been central to African-American culture and literature. as Jonathan Knight puts it, “My paintings are allegorical in nature,” which is to say, they are representational without necessarily being mimetic. They use types to tell stories.”

The exhibition was reviewed by James Trainor, for Frieze, Issue 69, September 2002. Trainor’s review was sensitive, considered and discussed the exhibition with great clarity. Amongst his concluding comments, “The Studio Museum in Harlem is in an uneviable position. On the one hand it represents a community and a culture, while on the other it is committed to presenting the foremost achievements of African-American artists to a wider world. The museum has been criticized by some in the black community, especially in its own backyard, Harlem, for ignoring precisely this kind of art in favour of the highbrow avant-garde practices that will be accepted downtown. ‘Black Romantic’ seems to be an acknowledgement and a questioning of those criticisms, and deserves credit for raising the issue of which black artists are on the inside and which are on the outside, and why.”

Related items

click to show details of Black Romantic - catalogue

»  Black Romantic - catalogue

Catalogue relating to an exhibition, 2002

click to show details of Black Romantic - review

»  Black Romantic - review

Review relating to an exhibition, 2002

People in this exhibition - view 5

»  Alonzo Adams

Born, 1961 in Harlem, New York

»  Leroy Allen

Born, 1951 in Kansas City, Kansas, USA

»  Iana L. N. Amauba

Born, 1975 in Eugene, Oregon, USA

»  Jules R. Arthur, III

Born, 1970 in St. Louis, Missouri, USA

»  Alexander Austin

Born, 1961 in Tallahassee, Florida, USA

»  Marlon H. Banks

Born, 1965 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA

»  Nina I. Buxenbaum

Born, 1974 in Brooklyn, New York, USA

»  Clifford Darrett

Born, 1941 in Evansville, IN, USA

»  Keith J. Duncan

Born, 1964 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

»  Lawrence Finney

Born, 1963 in Brooklyn, New York, USA

»  Gerald Griffin

Born, 1964 in Chicago, IL, USA

»  James Hoston

Born, 1963 in Freeport, NY, USA

»  Robert L. Jefferson

Born, 1929 in Philadelphia, PA, USA

»  Oliver B. Johnson, Jr.

Born, 1948 in Jacksonville, Florida, USA

»  Troy L. Johnson

Born, 1968 in Philadelphia, PA, USA

»  Jonathan M. Knight

Born, 1959 in Daytona Beach, FL, USA

»  Jeanette Madden

Born, 1950 in Berkeley, CA, USA

»  Cal Massey

Born, 1926 in Darby, PA, USA

»  Dean Mitchell

Born, 1957 in Pittsburg, PA, USA

»  Kadir Nelson

Born, 1974 in Washington, DC, USA

»  Leslie Printis

Born, 1947 in Philadelphia, PA, USA

»  Robert V. Reid

Born, 1960 in Trinidad, Caribbean

»  Jonathon Romain

Born, 1966 in Chicago, IL, USA

»  Philip Smallwood

Born, 1957 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, USA

»  Aj Smith

Born, 1952 in Jonestown, MS, USA

»  Toni L. Taylor

Born, 1958 in Mount Vernon, NY, USA

»  Hulbert Waldroup

Born, 1966 in Chicago, IL, USA

»  Larry Walker

Born, 1935 in Franklin, GA, USA

»  Shamek Weddle

Born, 1975 in Grand Rapids, MI

»  Kehinde Wiley

Born, 1977 in Los Angeles, CA, USA

Exhibition venues

»  Studio Museum in Harlem

New York, United States of America